Burn -- fiction by Julie Zhu
The monitor beeped monotonously as I reach for the needle, the green zig-zagged line displaying my heartbeat slowed to a stop as I tug on it gently, pulling it out from under my skin. The cold and damp room smelled of sweat and the faintest trace of blood, but none of it bothered me anymore. I slowly and carefully sit upright on my bed, the hinges creaking and the ripped foam grazing my skin. My brain numbs for a second to adjust to the new position, my hair matted to the side of my face, and the stiff and crinkled blue hospital gown presses itself into my thigh, leaving creases. My mind still a daze, I hoist myself up and walk with weakening muscles and trembling limbs to the window- my only outlet to the outside world. I feel my jaw clenching and back tightening as I stand there, gazing emptily into the busy streets where I have walked my whole life, I know them just the same as if they were etched in my head with a sharp knife, scored in deep like some strange work of art. These are the streets I grew up on.
For the most part, I’ve behaved in this place. Secluded, yes, but one wrong move could send me back to court. The fire that left bruises on my belly, cuts on my thighs, burns on my arms was the very same thing that had landed me where the “crazies” live- here in the asylum. It took away my mother. Sister. And it threatened to take me with it, and yet it failed. But the ones who had thought I’d ignited it was the real culprits. The deafening roar and unmistakable rumble of the enormous flames had engraved itself in my mind and body, but so have the people who had put me here. They insisted that I, a nine-year back then, could have done this outrageous thing and was a pyromaniac.
I slip my gaze away from the window and force myself to look at the mirror, a single tear trailing down my cheeks, onto my chin, and dripping to my chest. The universe had not been fair to me. As I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding, I saw the answer, clear as day. Revenge. I would get back it for what it had done to me. It punched. I would punch harder. I was tired of hoping, tired of believing- tired, tired, tired. But what did I want to feel? I was scared, yet longing. I’m here, thinking about how the hundreds of nights I had thought about this on the down-low with a steady heartbeat. I hear a knock on my door and swiftly jump back to bed, slipping my body under the covers. I force my breath to slow down and adjusting myself to look like I had been resting serenely.
“Robin,” comes a sickly sweet voice that I know now is my therapist. I catch sight of her bright yellow scarf that has become her trademark look. She pulls up a chair and taps her pencil on her clipboard and smiles her toothy smile.
“Megan,” I respond, mimicking her sugary tone. Cocky, not rude. Playful, but not
enough to arise suspicion. Joke with her, but don’t overdo it. Relax, Robin. This is our last session. You’ll never see her again after this. She laughs and shakes her head. We continue with our usual routine.
“Any nausea, vomiting, or lightheadedness?”
“Nope, not in the past week.”
“Urges to light a fire? ”
“I’m over that. ”
“Thoughts of escape or suicide?”
“Happy as can be, Megan. I’m doing better, I promise.” I make a joke about the food I’ve been served and it’s over. She refills my pill bottle, leaves a paper of my prescription and exits. I get up calmly, head and shoulders square and tread softly to the mirror. Lifting it up, I smash one hand-sized corner piece off, carefully making sure there was minimal noise. I grab the papers Megan left and run to the window. The sun shines warmly, it’s brilliance piercing my eyes. I raise the glass up to let the beam of light reflect on it. It takes a while for me to find the right angle and when I do, I lift the papers up to it and wait. I feel my arms getting sore, but as soon as I see the now beige paper opening up a hole where the light is concentrated, I breathe a
sigh of relief. A smoldering, ashy tear opens up until it consumes half of the paper. I’m not a monster, I think to myself. I’m not a monster. Smoke erupts from the scar, but not yet a flame. I panic and for a moment, the rush of adrenaline inside of me fades just a little.
A single flame erupts from the midst of ashes, a bud that slowly but surely grows. My heart races with ecstasy as puffs of steam blind my vision. I limp and toss the now blazing on the bed, my skin suddenly prickling with excitement. My legs collapsed underneath my feet and I fall to the ground, curling against the concrete walls and watch as the embers fly, striking the ceiling panels, my blood pulsating through my veins. Was I a fool to think this could free me?
Hues of red and orange twirl around my eyes in a fiery dance- a phoenix shackled and bound-screaming, howling, wailing. I feel the scorching heat rise, the fire taunting and teasing me, edging me on. But for once, I’m in control. My gaze hardens and tears threaten to choke me. But not tonight. Tonight my heart wants out of my chest. It wants to beat free of its cage. It pounds and pounds and I feel it so distinctly, yet it doesn’t feel wrong or scare me at all. I suppress a chuckle building in the back of my throat as I watch my prison go up in flames. Burn, I think.
Julie Zhu is a young writer from Dublin, Ohio who is also a published journalist and editor for The ChinaPress, producer/host of The Issue Of Self podcast, contemporary dancer, and flutist. She is passionate about various social justice issues, strives to find her authentic voice, and is heavily intrigued by the human psyche. Homesick for the city, Julie plans to move to New York as soon as she can and pick up combat kickboxing and become fluent in French.